They forced me into the car and took me to the police station

This story was told and discussed in Terezin, the former Nazi transport camp in the Czech Republic, during the opening session of a Stories Exchange Project workshop, ARTS OF TOLERANCE.
18 September 2000
John ErwinDirector, The Stories Exchange Project
What happened in Terezin during World War II continues to happen today throughout Europe and throughout the world – sometimes in very small ways, but one thing can so easily lead to another.
We have a story today about something that happened in Terezin this morning which suggests how important it is for us to be here. It’s a story about the Czech police and a dark-skinned man, Kumar Vishwanathan, who is here at the table with us. As most of you know, Kumar is the founder and director of an organization in Ostrava which has done outstanding work with the Romany community there, initiating remarkably successful programs in minority housing and education.
There is an irony in what happened to Kumar this morning here in Terezin. Our Romany colleague Janko Horvath has a story about Kumar’s experience this summer which we had planned to present tomorrow morning. So when I greeted Kumar today I said, "That’s a terrible story about what happened to you with the police,” and he told me that something similar had just happened to him an hour before.
Kumar VishwanathanDirector, Co-ExistenceOstrava
At eight o’clock this morning I was walking past the Ghetto Museum here in Terezin and a police car went by. Then they slowed down. They were watching me from the car.
They speeded up, drove around the block, and approached me from behind. Two policemen got out of the car and asked for my ID. I asked why they were checking my ID? “It’s a nice morning, ” I said. “I’m walking around town and you stop me. Why?”
They said that I look like someone who is wanted.
I told them that I am not a criminal and do not want to be confronted in this way. I said I will not show them my ID.
They said, “OK, then: get in the car. We’re taking you to the police station.
“I can’t go with you right away,” I said. “I’m waiting for a friend of mine. When he arrives I can go with you. “
They said, “We can’t wait. You have to get into the car. “
I didn’t want to go with them, but they forced me into the car and took me to the police station. They forced me to face the wall. Then they hand-searched me. They took everything out of my pockets. I told them they had no right to do so, but they claimed they did.
In the car I had called Petr Uhl [the Czech Government Commissioner for Human Rights]. His cell phone was off, so I called a friend of mine in Prague and asked him to contact Mr. Uhl. Then at the police station my phone rang, and it was Uhl. The policeman didn’t want me to answer the phone. I did answer, but the policeman told me to give the phone to him. When I did, he yelled something into the phone and switched it off. I asked him to give me back my phone but he would not.
They held me there for half an hour. When they found my ID, they wrote down all the details and let me go.
This often happens to me, and it makes me really nervous. Each time it takes me a while to get back in shape.
I wanted them to wait with me outside the Museum because I knew my friend was coming and would be a witness. But they took me away before he came, and pushed me into the car. The feeling I had was that with this color skin they can take me to the police station and do whatever they want with me.
I had Uhl’s phone and I had friends in Prague, but what if I had had no friends and no numbers?
Cenek RuzickaDirector, Romany Holocaust Association of Bohemia
In the Czech Republic we are quite used to things like this happening. Kumar was trying to defend himself the way all people should defend themselves. We are people of culture. We know what to do. But the policeman behaved to him as if he was not on their level – because his skin is darker than theirs.
For us Roma in this country, this should serve as an example of how to behave if we are confronted by a situation like that, a situation in which people do not treat us as equals. If something like that happens, we have to defend ourselves.
Markus PapeEuropean Roma Rights CenterBudapest
As Kumar knows – as we all know – , Roma in this country have had many bad things happen to them: much worse things than being taken to the police station. I’m worried that something worse will happen to Kumar in the future.
Kumar Vishwanathan
Last month – it was in July, we had a camp for kids, and the police did exactly the same thing to me.
[see, in this menu, Being a Citizen “So you’re armed, you dirty Gypsy?”]
There were eight of my friends who were there, the people who were in charge of working with the kids. And when the policemen wanted me to go in the car they said, “we’ll all go together.” I was really moved.
You must understand. I am breaking the law. The law in this country says that everyone is obliged to carry a document and when required by the police to show the document. I carry the document. I don’t want to break any law. But I’m firmly convinced that the practice of the police is full of prejudices which equate a dark-skinned person to a suspicious person.
If this were just my story, perhaps I would do the same, but I know that this is the story of many young people, young Roma boys in Ostrava. They are often taken to the police station, and they are treated more brutally than I was.
There are teenage boys in Ostrava who for no reason at all are taken to the police station and chained to the radiators. There are no witnesses. How do you prove that happened?
So this is a case of disobedience. I am disobeying the law. Consciously and deliberately.
I want to draw attention to a practice which is not just in Ostrava but I think in the whole country. This happens to me everywhere. It happens to me at almost all railway stations. It happens to me in all trains.
There was a period when I was working in Ostrava and I was living in Olomouc, and I used to travel between the two cities, and it happened almost once a week in trains. Policemen would wake me up in the trains late at night when I was returning home They didn’t check anybody else. They would wake me up and ask me to show the document.
Sometimes it was the same policeman who did that over and over again.
There is a big problem here. If this country is moving towards becoming a multicultural society with respect for all people, then the policemen will have to be prepared for that: they will have to be educated for that.
I’ve never faced this problem in the Netherlands. I’ve never faced this problem in Britain. I face it here and in Russia.
Petr UhlCzech Government Commissioner for Human Rights
This morning I received a telephone message telling me that Kumar was arrested.
I called him back, and when he answered the phone I asked him to pass the phone on to the police officer. He did so and the police officer told me that he was being subjected to an identity check.
I kept asking him, “What is your position?” and “What’s your name?” and I told him that I am the Government Commissioner for Human Rights.
But he didn’t answer, and hung up on me.
So I called the Deputy Minister of the Interior, Mr. Ibl, and about thirty minutes later Kumar was released. I assumed that it was because of an intervention on the part of the minister of the Interior.
Later Mr. Ibl confirmed that he had in fact called the police station, and that Kumar was released upon his intervention.
Kumar later explained that Mr. Ibl was told that the reason why he was detained and why his identity was being checked was that he was in an area where there was an increase in crime. This is not a legal reason.
Therefore I realized that we have to make sure that all our police officers understand what are the legal bases for asking for people’s IDs. They have to understand that they are not permitted to do it at anytime to just anybody.
When I arrived here in Terezin we went to the police station. After some hesitation on the part of the police officers we were able to begin a discussion with the police. The commander of the police station was quite understanding, quite open talking to us and tried to explain what had happened.
He fully realized that there are particular legal reasons which are stipulated by law, and that these reasons have to exist for the police to have the right to check people’s IDs. It was not clearly explained whether these reasons really existed. But it was clear that the regular police patrolmen did not really know these reasons – and did not understand what “racial prejudice” and “discrimination” mean.
To them it is discrimination if they beat a person of color until he or she bleeds.
They do not understand that applying different criteria to dark-skinned people is also discrimination.
So Jana Chalupova from President Havel’s office and I agreed that we would both write letters of complaint to the Police Inspectorate about this violation of the Police Act. It was not a criminal offense on the part of these policemen, but it was certainly a violation or a minor offense.
It so happens that Kumar is also a member of the Council on Human Rights, and I am the Chairman of the Council. So I really felt that I had to show solidarity with him.
That is one of the reasons that I went to the police station – and if Kumar wishes, after discussing the matter within the Council we may try to start a program that would train the police officers about their responsibilities. That would be part of a general education about human rights which this society needs.
John ShattuckU.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic
The story that Mr. Uhl has recounted to us regarding Kumar’s experience here in Terezin this morning is an important story.
And that’s why I salute the very important name of this project, the Stories Exchange. Stories are really at the heart of what this dialogue is all about. People can only understand the experience of other people if they hear each other’s stories, not if they just talk about theories.
There are many other comparable stories. I have many that I could bring from my own country in terms of the ongoing struggle that we’re engaged in in the United States to constantly address issues of discrimination in a society which is very diverse.
We have all the peoples of the world represented in the United States, and each individuals group or individual person has his or her own story to tell about the difficulties and opportunities that they have in becoming integrated into the larger society and being treated equally.
The Romany people are very important parts of our own community. And the Roma challenge is one to all of us because in many ways the Roma represent all of us. They are people of the world, and they are finding that in every single country they are facing serious problems of political and social and economic discrimination. When they tell those stories to us and all of us who are part of those stories as well try to respond by finding ways of engaging in dialogue:that’s very positive.
[You might also want to look at Romany Member of Parliament Monika Horakova’s response to Kumar’s experience in Terezin, also in this menu, “Being a Citizen”: “If people know their rights, they will know howthey should behave.”
You may also want to read the foregoing exchanges in the light of a statement made in the U.S. House of Representatives on 2 August 2001 by Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman and Congressman Christopher H. Smith of New Jersey about police abuse in the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) region:
“In the Czech Republic, lack of confidence in law enforcement agents has recently led some Roma to seek to form their own self-defense units. Frankly, is not surprising.
Roma in the Czech Republic continue to be the target of violent, racially motivated crime:
On April 25, a group of Roma were attacked by German and Czech skinheads in Novy Bor.
On June 30, four skinheads attacked a group of Roma in Ostrava; one of the victims of that attack was repeatedly stabbed, leaving his life in jeopardy.
On July 16, three men shouting Nazi slogans attacked a Romani family in their home in As (in western Bohemia). On July 21, a Romani man was murdered in Svitavy by a man who had previously committed attacks against Roma, only to face a slap on the wrist in the courts.
These cases follow a decade in which racially motivated attacks against Roma in the Czech Republic have largely beentolerated by the police.
Indeed, in the case of the murder of Milan Lacko, a police officer was involved. More to the point, he ran over Milan Lacko body with his police car, after skinheads beat him and left him in the road.
In another case, involving a 1999 racially motivated attack on another Romani man, the Czech Supreme Court issued a ruling that the attack was premeditated and organized, and then remanded the case back to the district court in Jesenik for sentencing in accordance with that finding. But thedistrict court simply ignored the Supreme Court’s finding and ordered four of the defendants released.
Under circumstances such as these, is it any wonder that Roma so lack confidence in the police and judiciary that they feel compelled to defend themselves?
I am not, however, without hope for the Czech Republic. Jan Jarab, the Czech Government’s Human Rights Commissioner,has spoken openly and courageously of the human rights problems in his country. For example, the Czech News Agency recently reported that Jarab had said that “the Czech legal system deals ‘benevolently’ with attacks committed by right-wing extremists,'[f]rom police investigators, who do not want to investigate such cases as racial crimes, to state attorneys and judges, who pass the lowest possible sentences.'” I hope Czech political leaders – from every party and every walk of life – will support Jan Jarab’s efforts to address the problems he so rightly identified.”
Jan Jarab is the successor to Petr Uhl, the first Czech Government Commissioner for Human Rights]
But above all:
 — to Kumar’s story
 — to comments about it in Terezin
 — to the ongoing situation.]

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